Sorry, Obama, Soccer Balls Won't Bring Progress to Africa

President Barack Obama generated a feel-good photo-op on Tuesday in Tanzania when he took a few moments to play with the Soccket, an ingenious soccer ball that can power an LED light for three hours after you kick it around for 30 minutes. Simply play with the ball, and then plug the light into the Soccket's socket.

After some good-natured showboating (he headed the ball), Obama explained, "The Soccket turns one of the most popular games in Africa into a source of electricity and progress. You can imagine this in villages all across the continent."

But we have some bad news for the president: It's pretty difficult to imagine Socckets electrifying every village once you learn the price tag: $99 per ball. As Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur write in the latest issue of Foreign Policy:

It really is a neat trick that a soccer ball only 2 ounces heavier than regulation weight can enclose a battery and technology pack that generates power from rolling. Then again, you can get a solar-powered lamp for $10. It isn't clear why anyone would pay 10 times that for a light whose power source you have to kick around for half an hour to get less illumination.

The authors' larger point is that seemingly ingenious solutions to poverty often fail in real life because they get funding "on the basis of their appeal to donors and philanthropists in the West rather than consumers in Africa." The idea of kicking a ball to make electricity sounds cool, but if you're a mom, say, how fun is it to plead with your kids to "play" with a ball for 30 minutes so you can get some light?

The only real way to know, as Kenny and Sandefur suggest, is the market test: Consumers buy a product if they like it and can afford it; if not, the product flops. But many poverty-alleviating innovations don't face much of a market test. The end users aren't the ones buying the product; the donors are. Thus users can't provide direct market feedback so producers know whether their innovation works or not. (Case in point: PlayPumps.)

Perhaps one day the two young, inspiring women who invented the Soccket while studying at Harvard University will refine the ball so it's more affordable and better-tailored to the needs of African consumers. (A $10 Soccket 3.0 has been "coming soon!" since July 6, 2011.) Until then, it's worth considering the question Bill Gates tweeted today in response to Kenny and Sandefur's article: "Can we encourage the market to create new tech that the poor can't create on their own?"

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Do You Speak the World's Weirdest Language?

Are you one of the 6,000 people in the world who speaks Chalcatongo Mixtec? Congratulations! You speak the world's weirdest language.

That's what Tyler Schnoebelen and the researchers at Idibon, a natural language processing company, found when they statistically compared 239 languages to see how like or unlike they were to one another. Using the World Atlas of Language Structures, Idibon coded the languages for 21 characteristics including, for example, how subjects, objects, and verbs are ordered in a sentence, or how a language makes clear that a sentence is a question.

When Schnoebelen ran the numbers, Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, was the least like the majority of the world's other languages. And it is pretty unusual: Schnoebelen describes it as a "verb-initial tonal language" that has no mechanism for demonstrating questions (so "You are alright." and "Are you alright?" sound the exact same). "I have spent part of the day imagining a game show in this language," Schnoebelen wrote in his analysis (for more on how to say everything from "I am sick" to "I bought many long ropes" in Chalcatongo Mixtec, see here). It's probably not surprising that some of the strangest languages are some of the most obscure. The second weirdest is Nenets, spoken in Siberia, followed by Choctaw, a Native American language from the central plains.

But some of the weirdest languages are widely spoken. The seventh-strangest language, Kongo, is spoken by half a million people in Central Africa. After that comes Armenian, then German. English ranks fairly high as well, coming in 33rd. There's also no particular region of strange languages -- the top 25 weirdest (pictured with red dots in the map below) are scattered across every continent. Mandarin is one of the strangest languages, while Cantonese is one of the most "normal." And linguistic families are also no guarantee of similarity. Schnoebelen notes that while Germanic languages are all pretty weird, Romance languages run the full breadth of the strangeness spectrum, from Spanish, which falls in the Weirdness Index's top 25, down to Portuguese, which ranked as one of the most mundane languages.

"Personally, I think that every language has something weird about it," Schnoebelen tells FP by email, explaining that studying the peculiarities of different languages is part of the draw of linguistics. And of course, there were certain things that couldn't be coded in his analysis. "For example," Schnoebelen writes, "sometimes we hear a colorful idiom in another language and it really stands out. But how would you go about coming up with a scoring system that anyone could apply consistently to hundreds of languages?"

The index takes a hard look at the objective structures of languages, and makes for a good reminder. Think Hindi sounds strange? It's actually the most normal language of all. And we English speakers are pretty weird ourselves.

For those who are curious, here's Idibon's 10 weirdest languages (you can find the full ranking here)

1.  Mixtec (Chalcatongo)
2.  Nenets
3.  Choctaw
4.  Diegueño (Mesa Grande)
5.  Oromo (Harar)
6.  Kutenai
7.  Iraqw
8.  Kongo
9.  Armenian (Eastern)
10.  German